A second nationwide protest in less than two months, called by 10 central trade unions, was staged on Friday, July 3, against the anti-people policies of the Narendra Modi – led central government, now being pushed forth under the cover of ‘COVID-19 lockdown’.
The first such protest on a national scale post the COVID-19 induced lockdown, jointly called by central trade unions, was observed on May 22. Spread across different occupational sectors, the Friday protest was observed in almost one lakh places in all the states, according to central trade unions, by public sector employees, industrial workers, scheme workers and also by unions representing informal workers. Solidarity poured in from the farmers’ and agricultural workers’ organisations, who actively participated in demonstrations in rural areas.
The central government, “which has no respect and concern, towards the rights and basic survival-entitlements of workers and the people does not deserve any cooperation,” said the 10 central trade unions, that cuts across political affiliations, in a joint statement issued on Friday.
“We, the workers, need to do everything possible to defend our rights of unionisation, collective bargaining, decent working condition, wages and future securities,” the statement added.
Huge participation of central government employees was witnessed, who registered their agitation against the privatisation and commercialisation of strategically core sectors.
Demonstration in Rajasthan
Railway employees, represented by their national and regional fronts, staged lunch-hour demonstrations against the proposal of private companies running trains on selected routes. Protests were also observed by railway guards, who were led by All India Guards Council (AIGC); slogans were raised at rail coach factories in Uttar Pradesh’s Rae Bareli and Punjab’s Kapurthala, among others.
Also read: Hunger Strike, Demonstrations, Arrests Across Country as Trade Unions Observe Nationwide Protest Day
After commencing a step in this direction last year itself, the Indian Railways on Wednesday, July 1, had said that bids from private companies have been invited for running 151 modern passenger trains over 109 Origin Destinations (OD) pairs of routes – in a first of its kind move for inviting private investment in running passenger trains. Last year, in October, the country’s first private train on the Lucknow-Delhi route Tejas Express was launched.
“Any move to privatise the Indian Railways will be strongly opposed,” said Shiv Gopal Mishra, general secretary of All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), which is also the largest employees’ union in the country.
“The rail workers protested against the destructive agenda of the Centre today. It will only intensify in the coming days by forging a joint front of all central government employees. We will even go on strike, if forced to,” he told NewsClick. Last major strike of railways was held almost 46 years ago in 1974.
Similarly, at sectoral level, agitational programmes were organised in offices and work facilities by insurance, defence, bank, electricity and state telecom carrier BSNL employees.
Demonstration in Jharkhand
In the wake of COVID-19 linked disruptions in the Indian economy, the central government went on a privatisation spree. In May, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that under the new Public Sector Enterprises Policy – part of Atmanirbhar Bharat Package – there will be maximum of four public sector companies in strategic sectors and state-owned firms in other segments will eventually get privatised.
The new policies also included introduction of commercial mining in coal sector and enhancement of private investments in mineral sector – a move that has invited flak from industry experts as well as workers’ fronts.
Friday’s nationwide protest coincides with the second day of the three-day strike being observed by around 5.3 lakh coal workers – both, permanent and contract – in at least 400 mines and 75 establishments spread across nine states.
“It is for the first time that such an overwhelming response can be witnessed in an opposition to a policy matter – and which is not just related to economic benefits of the workers,” D. D. Ramanandan, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions-backed All India Coal Workers Federation (AICWF) told NewsClick. “The strike has received support from steel, oil federations and even by the people at large. Today’s protest highlights the unified agitation against the anti-labour agendas of the Modi government,” he said.
Demonstration in West Bengal
Protests were staged by oil and gas workers as well at Indian Oil Corporation’s (IOC) Digboi refinery in Assam and unit offices of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC) at Assam’s Silchar and Tripura’s Agartala among others.
Nogen Chutia, general secretary of Petroleum and Gas Workers’ Federation of India (PGWFI), explained the “illogical” move of the Centre to increase petrol and diesel prices through taxation in times of pandemic-hit crisis. “On one hand, the oil prices are being increased by the Centre, and on other hand, it is in talks to privatise the oil companies – a decision that will further deregulate the oil sector. The oil workers are against both the moves,” he said.
Also read: Central Trade Unions May Approach ILO on Labour Laws Suspension in Some States
Meanwhile, industrial areas across the country also reverberated with the demands of workers to revoke changes in the labour laws. Led by trade unions, factory workers in hundreds gathered in Haryana’s Manesar and Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad urging the government to pay heed to their demand of cash transfers.
With MSMEs among the worst hit by the virus-triggered lockdown, huge wage cuts and mass lay-offs now grips the industrial establishments in these belts. Amid this, some states including Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat introduced relaxations in labour laws, which is feared to further the hardships of factory workers.
The protest also saw participation by sections of informal workers, including those from the construction sector and street vending business. VKS Gautam, general secretary of Building Workers’ Union explained the significance of their protest. “It is a fight to save the pillars of our country on which livelihoods of many is depended. The Modi government’s policies are exclusionary in nature. It will affect the poor and the marginalised in the worst manner. The informal workers are understanding this and thus are coming forward, giving voice to their anger.”
The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee – which consists of 130 farmers’ groups – also expressed solidarity to the Friday protest, saying that “the lockdown is being used by the central government to enact laws against farmers and workers to swiftly implement policies that promote and support corporates.”
Demonstrations, led by All India Agricultural Workers’ Union (AIAWU), were held in rural areas in Punjab and Maharashtra, and also by agricultural workers and MGNREGA workers demanding increase in wages and work days under rural employment guarantee scheme.
At places where gathering was not possible, online public meetings were held which saw participation in thousands, for instance in states like Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
Demonstration in Andhra Pradesh
In New Delhi, the representatives of central trade unions staged a demonstration in front of Shram Shakti Bhawan. The leaders met Santosh Gangwar, Minister of State (independent charge), Ministry of Labour and Employment and submitted a memorandum.
Speaking with NewsClick, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) general secretary Amarjeet Kaur said it is no more only a trade union’s fight but a “struggle of common man”. She said, “The government is not paying heed to our concerns; it is talking about Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-sufficient India) but doing exactly the reverse. If such an irresponsible attitude continues, the stir will only intensify in the coming day.”
A meeting of central trade unions has been scheduled on July 8 in which the future course will be decided, she added.